Michigan State's Nick Ward 'absolutely' can play in NBA, ESPN's Jay Bilas says

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State forward Nick Ward (44) gave up his senior season to enter the NBA draft.

Nick Ward likely won’t hear his name called on Thursday during the NBA Draft, but that doesn’t mean the former Michigan State big man doesn’t have a promising future.

At least, that’s the way ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas sees things.

“Can he play in the NBA? Absolutely he can,” Bilas said this week during a conference call. “Do I see him as being among the 60 players that will be drafted? I don’t, but I could be wrong on that. He’s a terrific young man and I think, whether he’s drafted or not, he’s got a chance to have a long professional career. It may not be in the NBA, maybe it will be.

“But you can make a lot of money and have a fantastic career playing overseas, lot of guys sign two-way contracts where they’re in the G-League and the NBA, all that stuff. There’s a lot of ways to approach a long career in professional basketball.”

Ward entered the draft after his sophomore season, but ultimately decided to return to Michigan State. He was having another solid season before a broken left hand sidelined him for the final five regular-season games. In his absence, sophomore Xavier Tillman thrived as the offense centered around point guard Cassius Winston took off, propelling the Spartans to a Big Ten championship and a trip to the Final Four.

Ward was back for the postseason, but his role was limited off the bench. He opted to once again enter the NBA Draft, and this time it was for good.

Whether that was the right decision can only be answered by Ward, Bilas said.

“Only he knows whether it was a good choice or not for him,” Bilas said. “I just don’t look at this as being sort of where you get drafted is the dispositive issue. In other words, if you’re going to be a first-round pick or a lottery pick you have to go, or if you’re not going to be drafted or you shouldn’t go unless you’ll be a high second-round pick, stuff like that. All that analysis doesn’t necessarily work for each player.

“Nick’s been in college for a while. He knows what college is about. So my guess is he made an informed decision that was best for him.”

Ward was an All-Big Ten third-team selection by the coaches and the media as a junior and finished third on the team in scoring and rebounding with 12.9 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. He averaged 15.3 points and 7.1 rebounds in conference play. In 104 career games, Ward scored 1,359 points, a 13.1 per game average, which ranks No. 26 all-time at Michigan State. He also connected on 60.5 percent of his field-goal attempts, which ranks fifth all-time at MSU.

However, how that translates to the NBA is the big question.

At 6-foot-9 and 245 pounds, Ward is a more traditional low-post scorer who is trying to make it in a game that his becoming less reliant on that type of player.

“At his size, he would be an undersized back-to-the-basket player,” Bilas said. “He’s not a super-explosive athlete that plays above the rim and from an NBA standpoint, the game has kind of been changing while he’s been in the game. It is a perimeter-oriented game now, so guys that are versatile, can step out and knock down on a shot, can defend on the perimeter, can switch and guard multiple spots are and are becoming increasingly more valuable.

“I would categorize Nick as a more traditional low-post player and there are not as many of those coveted right now.”

Ward has worked out for the Magic and the Pistons. Last week after his workout in Auburn Hills, Ward said there’s been talk of him going late in the second round and that he’s been busy proving to teams he can be a more versatile player than he showed at Michigan State.

“I can do a lot more than people see,” said Ward, who added he’s lost 13 pounds since the end of the season. “I can put the ball on the ground, I can shoot mid-rangers, even spot-up 3's. Even though I didn’t show it much, I can do it. I feel like my game will translate well in the NBA. I can switch on guards, I can get my shot off against anybody. I feel like I can hold my own."


Twitter: @mattcharboneau